A WHALE OF A TALE
The domestication of 30 years made Phoebe yearn for a duster as she delved through brittle books, piles of piano scores, and stacks of pages that had come loose from their bindings. She discovered several sheets of Purcell's music tucked inside the parish register of births and deaths for a village that no longer existed, and a docket from the quartermaster of a regiment of hussars listing buttons, ticking and bottles of boot black fell out of a buff folder. Phoebe replaced the pages and worked her way past the natural history books with covers of enticing, dewy-eyed, baby marsupials, and fearsome tigers, burning bright in the narrow bands of summer sunlight stabbing the shelves of the old shop. She hadn't come here to browse, however. This Dickensian corner of the High Street was the technophobe and bibliophile's last retreat from the advances of an electronic invasion determined to sterilise the human mind of original thought.
Phoebe worked her way past architecture and collectables to the young woman crocheting beneath a tower of ancient encyclopaedias.
'My name is Phoebe Harrison. Mrs Betting at the museum phoned to say she would leave something with you before she left for New Zealand?'
The young woman lowered the lacy baby's bonnet and smiled. She took an envelope from a drawer. 'That's right. Mary said it had been posted over 20 years ago. They obviously had no idea where to find you. The museum held onto it because it contained pages from an 18th century ship's log. Whoever sent it only knew your maiden name and town.'
'Robert, my husband, didn't like museums. I can't think why anyone would have sent it there.'
'If you hadn't used your original name on the museum's sponsorship drive for the new renovation, it would probably have ended up in some skip. Seems the old place is going in for the new, lean look, which means all architecture and little content. At least quite a few goodies came my way during the clear out.'
Phoebe took the mysterious foolscap envelope postmarked Bermuda and carefully opened it. She didn't know anyone in Bermuda; the nearest she had been to the Caribbean was watching wildlife documentaries.
Inside it was another envelope, cream coloured, with a broken wax seal.
'Someone you used to know?' asked the bookseller.
'I really have no idea, but please thank Mrs Betting for me, won't you.'
'Of course. She won't be back for other month, but I'll remember. Call in again when you have more time to browse. They'll be more stuff worth looking at in here than the museum.'
Phoebe pushed the envelopes into the pocket on her bag and left to finish the shopping.
Once home, when the groceries had been put away, she pulled out the mysterious, ancient pages carefully torn from a ship's log and a letter in archaic, copperplate handwriting. It was understandable why the museum had held on to them.
"This is my last act of desperation," the letter began. "I'm sure my other communications have been intercepted. As we both come from history, I pray that your museum might have some knowledge of you and these pages will bring back the recollection of who you are."
Phoebe gave a wry smile. The letter had obviously been intended for her, though she had no idea what the writer was talking about. Her only contribution to history was cataloguing her late husband's collection of Great War memorabilia.
The first entry on the log pages started in an 18th-century script she was fortunately able to make out, "The year of Our Lord, 1727. This day, the 28th, March, we did pick up the following breeze that preserved us from the doldrums."
A quick glance through the other pages revealed some mild blasphemy and change of pen. Phoebe was now intrigued enough to take a pot of tea, slice of lemon meringue and the pages of the logbook into the garden of her bungalow to read them by the light of the setting sun. A few flakes from the original log's brittle binding fell from the pages as she laid them out on the table and attracted the attention of a sparrow.
"10th, April. We have come to a small island possessed of clear running water and some fruits. The carpenter would have the Charon careened over to clean. I could not allow it. There being no natural harbour, we would be too visible.
"12th, April. Under way again. Have plotted course for New England where it is not likely they have intelligence of our name."
'Hmm… a pirate?' Phoebe took a long sip of tea and noticed the young sparrow patiently waiting for a crumb. The bird chirped and she threw it a morsel of meringue.
"15th, April. We would move faster if we found shallow water and let the barnacles walk us there. Sighted one Spaniard and two merchantmen. They sat too high in the water to have cargo and unlikely to trade for our contraband. The Charon gives them a wide berth.
"God's wounds! Part of the hold is water logged. Carpenter set to with six men. The repair will not see us to New England. Will put in at next safe harbour."
The following entry was much longer, on modern stationery and written in a less archaic hand - and Biro!
"17th, April, 1727, but recorded this day on 3rd, May, 1985."
Phoebe caught her breath, and then read on.
"We sighted the Devil's chariot off our port side, a strange vessel engulfed in a shell of flame! We did not show our colours and kept a safe distance. With a good following wind even the Charon should have outpaced it, but by some goddamned miracle it doubles its speed and swings round to cut off our run. The vessel had no sail or rudder. It hovered just above the water, behaving like a cat twitching at its prey."
Only at that point did Phoebe suspect that this had to be some sort of hoax, albeit a very elaborate and pointless one. She was beginning to find it entertaining all the same.
Phoebe tossed another crumb to the sparrow as she fully expected the next entry to announce that the Charon had blundered into the Bermuda Triangle. Either that or their rum must have been pretty potent.
"I ordered those men, who still had wits enough, to load the small cannon, but the demon craft was no larger than a dinghy and too quick and the bow guns could not get it in their sights. Then the flaming creature shot straight up with the speed of a squid. We let loose a warning volley. Instead of driving it away, the devil machine became curious and returned to hover over the fore royal, sending out feelers of light like a pink, Portuguese man-of-war. This was too much for my superstitious crew. They took to the longboat, leaving me to do what I would about the demon. I was totally abandoned and with no hope of escape when it dropped from the sky, narrowly missing the main mast. A violent wind tore at the sails and laid me flat."
At that point, some deeply suppressed recollection attempted to surface in Phoebe's mind. Her head began to swim. She put it down to the sugar in the meringue, much more than her doctor allowed.
The sensation faded, though an incomprehensible notion continued to niggle away at her subconscious like an annoying needle trying to thread ancient memories together. Just in case, Phoebe swallowed a blood pressure tablet before returning to the log pages.
"When I woke, a figure clad in pink was standing over me on a platform of thin air, hovering like a humming bird. I have seen many demons in my time. Never one dressed in pink. She was a short, sturdy woman, and holding my cutlass as daintily as the Port Royal ladies flourish their parasols. Her skin was not so brown as mine, her teeth as white as a shark's and her movements nimble, like a marmoset's. 'Madam,' said I rising, not able to doff my hat because she was wearing it like a trophy. ( I was thankful that my wig had not been blown off as well - what frizzy locks I have suggest that my parentage was strangely mixed in a way I have not yet been able to fathom, and no one I know will admit to.)
'Captain Manners,' she said, 'forgive my intrusion, but you have an item that does not belong to you.'
'Me Madam? I am no pirate, just an impecunious smuggler. What sort of contraband could I have which interests you?' Her cutlass point playfully sliced an inch of lace from my neckerchief-"
And there the last entry abruptly ended.
'Oh drat!' Phoebe slapped the pages onto the plastic garden table with a "thwack!" and the meringue pecking sparrow took fright. There seemed little chance of her ever reading the conclusion to that tall tale.
By the time for bed, the novelty of Captain Manners' unlikely escapade had almost seeped from her thoughts and Phoebe fell into a deep sleep as though anxious to keep a dream appointment with a phantom lover. Even while floating off into the arms of Morpheus, she doubted that any woman could be that lucky after her humdrum marriage to a man as dreary man as her late husband. Life with Robert had been so tasteless she had reverted to her maiden name when he died in the hope of avoiding any of his old acquaintances who wanted to see his memorabilia collection, which she had immediately donated to charity.
Instead of rushing into the arms of a handsome dream prince, the inexplicable, impossible recollections that had been jolted out by the log pages returned. Phoebe was floating above a bright blue sea dotted with islands and could see the three-masted Charon of Captain Manners. As for the handsome prince, a dandyish sort of sea dog wearing an elaborate wig decades out of date, and a flamboyant lace neckerchief, stood on the poop deck, staring up in disbelief at her extraordinary craft. It was pink! A giant, jellylike pear drop that could skim, turn and dart about as fast as a hummingbird!
There was a terrifying jolt of recognition as Phoebe felt herself merge with the vessel. This eccentric dream was turning into a nightmare.
To make matters worse, in the next instant she was standing on the deck of the Charon clutching a cutlass. 'Now, Captain Manners, down to business.'
She returned the captain's hat, and he doffed it with unnecessary affectation. 'Madam-'
Phoebe heard herself suddenly demand, 'Where is the trunk you ordered your bosun to steal?'
'Trunk, Madam? What trunk? As God is my witness I know of no trunk.'
'The shiny metal one containing those pretty, glittering baubles, magpie!'
'Oh ... That trunk. I can assure you that we found it quite unattended.' The Captain cast her a sly sideways glance. 'A wonderful casket.'
'Which is of no use to you whatsoever.' Phoebe raised the cutlass. 'Fetch it or I will take a slice out of your lying throat.'
The aggression of Phoebe's dream alter ego was giving her a wonderful buzz. It was no longer a nightmare now that she was in control.
Then without warning the dashing appearance of Captain Manners changed. He seemed to shrink inside his massive wig and the braided frock coat took on a life of its own now its wearer could no longer fill it. The pistols in his sash were too huge to be wielded by such narrow, tapering fingers and his large shoe buckles looked like the eyes of some subterranean monster scrutinising the ribbons fluttering from his knee breeches. The moustache became shorter, the chin more pointed, and the voice less abrasive. The grin ceased to be malevolent and was now mercurial. Phoebe somehow knew that the hazelnut brown man beneath the huge wig had a shock of badly cropped, frizzy hair.
'I will fetch your precious trunk, Madam!'
The Captain hastened below.
While Phoebe waited for him to return, her pink craft remained hovering just above the ship's wheel.
The Charon's longboat was well away, being rowed by a crew pulling frantically on its oars and, in the distance, a large square-rigged four-master was heading towards the ship.
Manners staggered up from his cabin with a gleaming metal case the size of a brandy cask. In one of his huge coat pockets he had shoved the ship's log, and the other overflowed with jewellery. He placed the case before Phoebe.
'Madam, I have a potentate's collection of silks, velvets, pearls, lace, mother-of-pearl combs ... precious gems ...’ He held up a ruby necklace that clashed horribly with her pink satin. 'Are you sure you won't have any of them instead?'
'Of what use are they?'
'Of what use is your casket of marvels?'
'You'd better not have damaged it, magpie.'
The Captain fumbled with the catches on the case and the lid sprang open as though all the ills in Pandora's Box were pushing to get out. The interior resembled a massive geode encrusted with sparkling crystals. It was obvious why this magpie didn't want to part with it.
As Phoebe approached, the crystals recognised her. They lit up, rotating in invisible sockets and spangling the drab canvas sails with flashes of rainbow light.
Manners gasped. 'What is this marvellous machine?'
Without warning the monstrous memory of what she was really exploded into Phoebe's dream.
But the Captain had other things on his mind. He pointed out to sea. 'Madam, I own that my curiosity about this wonderful engine is quite intense. However, even though it may appear fickle of me, I feel we should pay more attention to that man-of-war bearing down on us.'
Phoebe still fought against accepting the truth. 'It's all right. It's only a dream.'
'The King's Navy is a nightmare.'
The warship was on the verge of looming over the Charon.
Manners became quite ashen. 'You may not have noticed. My crew have abandoned ship and I cannot fire a cannon by myself, even if I thought the Navy would pay attention to it.'
A cannonball sheered off the main topgallant mast and it crashed down. Another snapped the bowsprit and it fell into the sea.
'You may be immortal, Madam, but I am not!'
'What will happen if they capture you?'
'Hanging, Madam! As God is my witness I have never taken the life of any mortal soul, blasphemed on Sundays, and would have been very good to my mother had I known who she was. Nevertheless, despite my virtues, our assailants tend to have inflexible ideas about contraband being smuggled under the noses of the King's men. I am neither pirate nor privateer, merely a slug of this ocean.'
There was no point in both of them panicking.
'Pick up the case and take it aboard my ship,' Phoebe ordered.
With a mere thought, her pink pear drop sank to deck level. So far, it had not flinched at the cannons' onslaught: the man-of-war seemed to be holding its fire to try and make out what it was before blowing the Charon to pieces, but when its pilot and the Captain disappeared through its hatch, a volley struck the craft and sent it spinning out onto the sea.
Inside, Manners barely had room to claw his wig back into position. 'Where are we?' he panicked.
'Sitting on the water like a flightless pelican.'
'I do have a very delicate neck, Madam!' he pleaded.
'All right, all right! Don't keep jumping about!' Phoebe opened a cavity in the floor and slotted the case of sparkling crystals into it before lunging across the cramped interior, pressing buttons.
Manners froze in terror as another direct hit landed on the craft's roof. 'Why aren't we moving?'
'Because you stole the fuel unit before it was fully charged I have no control over our destination. Wherever we end up, you probably won't enjoy that any more than hanging.'
'What could be worse than hanging?'
'What about waking up several centuries in the past - or future?'
'That last hit jammed the time regulator so I'll have to override it.' Phoebe pushed a small rod into the engine's matrix.
There was an almighty flash as dimensions folded in on them and the craft was catapulted out of time.
Phoebe suddenly woke, expecting to find that she was crashing into infinity. Instead, morning sunlight was striking the sheets that had fallen into in a crumpled heap by her bed.
Phoebe swallowed a strong coffee before pulling out her late husband's briefcase from its hallowed place in the sideboard. It had remained untouched since Robert's executor locked it, no doubt from her prying fingers. At the time it hadn't seemed odd, now she had stopped taking the medication he insisted she needed things were beginning to make terrible sense. Knowing how well she could wield a cutlass, opening the lock with a screwdriver presented no problem.
Despite the attempts of her late husband to keep secrets, he had failed to take his files of legal documents to the grave with him. Having no idea he was about to die, Robert also hadn't got around to donating his entire estate to the military charity he supported. Phoebe hoped the man was looking down, or up, from his purgatory for unempathic human beings as she lay out on the dining room table all the secrets kept from her during the marriage she couldn't even remember agreeing to. How had she been persuaded - this cutlass wielding, dominatrix of the high seas - into believing that she was some timid doormat of a woman? Why hadn't it occurred to her a long while ago; why only now, after giving up the tablets her husband insisted their doctor prescribe?
Amongst all the usual insurance policies, birth and wedding certificates, there was no sign of the letters from Captain Manners. Phoebe knew they existed. They had been written by a madman, and the insane don't know when to give up. The smuggler probably only stopped sending them when he preferred other people to believe he was, after all, sane.
Only now could Phoebe recall being amused when the first, and as far as she been aware only, letter arrived. Her new husband must have intercepted all the others. Perhaps he had burnt them? No, Robert had been too obsessive about destroying anything to do that.
Their doctor and solicitor had been his close friends. At least one of them knew the truth. Dr Jenkins, who had been drugging Phoebe for the last 30 years, was the easiest to deal with, so she called on him first. Fearful of being struck off for professional misconduct, he admitted that he had genuinely believed the barrage of letters from the inmate of an asylum could have tilted the delicate balance of Phoebe's mind.
Until then, Phoebe had been unaware that the memory loss about her previous life had been diagnosed as borderline insanity. It did not improve her attitude. Until then she had felt intimidated by her husband's solicitor but now, having drawn a cutlass on the high seas, he was the one to be unnerved when it was pointed out to him, in no uncertain terms, that the letters were her property and he would hardly appreciate it if the police were asked to retrieve them.
The envelopes arrived by courier the following morning, neatly bundled and tied with red ribbon.
The first one Phoebe opened was in that familiar script.
It was dated 3rd, December, 1988, Bermuda. "Madam, I realise that there is only a slim chance of you receiving this, but the nurses now trust me with sharp instruments so I am able to address you in a civilised manner. Missives scrawled in crayon are unlikely to stimulate confidence and only confirm what that ignoble husband of yours must be telling you about my state of my mind. I now appreciate that this institution's only concern is to protect me from myself. Apparently my confusion at being plunged centuries into the future must have made me seem mad to them.
"I did manage to conceal your wonderful machine before we were 'rescued'. Had I been able to escape, I would not have dared try to operate it. These speaking boxes and moving picture engines I subsequently encountered were perplexing enough. I only wish I could have lost my memory as you apparently did when we crashed! You were right. The finality of hanging does, after all, have its appeal, though I own that the linen of this madhouse is regularly laundered and inmates are not chained to the wall."
This was the real Captain Manners speaking, cynicism dripping from every syllable.
Phoebe quickly riffled through the other letters. The envelopes had become fewer as the years passed until eventually, after ten years, they stopped. Captain Manners was now surely dead or really mad. She had to know.
With the help of a genealogist and many hours online, Phoebe discovered the whereabouts of a Captain Peter Manners in Bermuda. He was the right age and working as a gardener for a religious order where blaspheming was frowned upon. That had to be her man.
Phoebe booked a flight.
Captain Manners was now well into his 70s. Becoming a dedicated gardener and blaspheming under his breath had at last enabled him to rationalise his situation as preferable to being hanged for smuggling or blown out of the water by the King's Navy. Though it would take more than one lifetime for the 18th-century sea dog to come to terms with the time travelling, pink pear drop captained by a young woman in a matching skin-tight bodysuit who had caused his predicament. He knew then that his only hope of returning to the chaotic century which spawned him, had been to restore her memory before they were rescued from the tiny island where her craft landed. Failing in that, he had no choice other than to hurriedly conceal the time capsule. Now any opportunity of going back had long gone because, he knew in his heart, that the letters he had sent would never reach her.
The brethren of the order employing Peter had been unnerved by his hyperactive behaviour and archaic speech, so they hired him out to work in the many large gardens on the island. Their more worldly wise, wealthy owners were glad to have someone under the delusion that they were an 18th-century smuggler employed in the grounds: it added character to their property and provided many an opportunity for social banter. It was a pity they didn't understand what Peter called them under his breath.
This shadow of an industrious smuggler was crouching to peck weeds from a huge pot of datura and muttering to himself when a distantly familiar voice rang out.
It emanated from the hallucination which had been responsible for his incarceration so long ago. Unprepared to encounter the young woman in the skin-tight pink bodysuit, he dare not turn round. When he did summon the courage, he needn't have worried. Phoebe was now middle-aged and dressed like a lady who lunches in London restaurants.
'Where is my time capsule, magpie?'
Peter lost his balance and toppled over onto the tiled path.
How dare his nemesis suddenly appear out of nowhere after a lifetime of toil and tribulation? The shock of seeing her brought out the prevaricating rogue in him.
'Madam, have you nothing but that to say to me? Aren't you at least interested in how mere sea fodder like myself managed to extrapolate from the mechanisms of this bizarre world how to locate the town and country you were carried off to by that opportunist charlatan? Is my lifetime of frustration to be brushed off like an annoying mosquito?'
The domesticated Phoebe would have been sympathetic to his plight; this one was just practical. 'Still the same evasive rogue.'
'As we only encountered each other for less than a day so many centuries ago, I hardly think that is adequate time in which to draw conclusions about my innate failings.'
Then what he had first said occurred to her. 'What opportunist charlatan?'
Manners was hardly surprised that her memory was taking so long to recover. 'A passenger on the ship that took us off the island showed an unhealthy interest in you. Having some important position or other, he was allowed closer proximity than was healthy. To prevent me having no further contact with you and thwarting his disreputable intentions, he ensured my 18th century rantings committed me to an asylum at the first port of call.'
'And here I remained while you traversed the Atlantic to become his marriage fodder. I can only imagine your astonishment when you eventually realised that you were actually a time travelling demon.'
He was right.
Phoebe's reasoning was now that of the young time traveller picking up the threads of a doomed experiment. At least her mature years meant that she was better able to cope with its consequences.
'Where is my time capsule?' she demanded.
'Probably encrusted in coral. As we ended up embedded in the shallows of a small island, I piled sand and pebbles over your device before that mastless ship found us.'
'I don't remember the ship.'
'Some malign agent cleared your mind of all thoughts. When the engine of your craft shut down, inexplicably, so did you, like the doused flame of a candle. You didn't remember anything, least of all who you were. When I attempted to explain to our rescuers why you were wearing a bright pink bodysuit of unidentifiable molecular material and I was clad in the costume of a three century old ship’s master, my sanity was easily thrown into doubt. Had I known more about this prating, parsimonious world, I would have pretended we had been washed overboard from a yacht holding a fancy dress party.'
Despite a lifetime of being deceived, one thing now only worried Phoebe. 'Can you be sure no one discovered the time capsule?'
'Your unholy device would have been encrusted by the ocean's opportunists by the time any infernal flying machine orbiting this odd world mapped that particular island. If you wish to retrieve it now, I suggest you bring a very sharp chisel.'
At last Phoebe was able to accept who she really was; a mere a drone genetically engineered to pilot experimental craft from an antiseptic, unequal, controlling, technological future.
And what had Captain Manners been? A minor reprobate and gallows fodder. In another time and place his mind could have been put to better use. And what would happen if they went back to her futuristic century? Phoebe would be nothing more than a redundant drone and "decommissioned". Goodness only knew what they would do to the historical oddity accompanying her.
She went to one of the ornamental seats by the manicured lawn and sat down while he remained disconsolately on the path under the datura.
'What do you want to do?'
Captain Manners had not been expecting the question; it was the first time his personal demon acknowledged that he might have a point of view.
He slowly rose and cast a wistful glance at the horizon. 'There was a local lady here who captured my heart many years ago. She was an attendant at the institution I was first committed to. She realised I was not mad and eventually persuaded them to release me. We were married.'
'That's when the letters stopped?'
'I did not want her to believe she had been mistaken about my sanity, or suspect that I was interested in another woman.'
'Carmen already had a son. We were together nine years… then she died.' The memory of her obviously affected him deeply. 'The loss was too much and did not help my state of mind. Her son was a good man, and saw I was in a safe home before leaving to take up an important position in New York. A few years later the holy brethren offered me employment. No doubt a charitable act they now regret.'
Phoebe's impatience got the better of her. 'But what do you want to do?'
Captain Manners' expression remained distant. 'Just watch the stars and dream.'
It sounded like a good idea.
'The time capsule must be decommissioned before it's discovered.'
'Leave it to the limpets.'
'It would be disastrous if that technology fell into the wrong hands.'
'And how will you destroy it? Expect me to light another bonfire of coconut husks with my tinderbox?'
'You don't still carry that, do you?'
'Sentimental reasons.' Captain Manners joined her on the seat. 'Your infernal machine is indestructible? '
'And very difficult to outwit. We share elements of DNA. It's more my master than I am its captain. The trauma of crashing broke my bond with it. That is why it shut down. It restored the link when my flight must have passed over it two days ago. I had a hell of a job explaining to the cabin staff that I wasn't having a seizure. Yes, I would like to blow up the damned time capsule and permanently forget who I really am. But it's not possible, and perhaps there is a better way.'
Manners groaned. The last time she sounded this confident he had ended up in an asylum attempting to explain that he had been kidnapped by a woman from the future wearing pink.
Phoebe watched him attentively. 'So, you just want to watch the stars and dream?'
'Perhaps write the odd letter to my stepson and his children, and grow vegetables.'
'You're a bloody funny sea-dog.'
'I am a historically disorientated reprobate who had a keen eye for anything that glittered.'
'All right, magpie. I know I should never have left the fuel unit unattended to recharge on that beach.' Why did she? Phoebe suspected that she had been trying to find a way of escaping the society that had created her, but the extent of the fuel matrix's strange properties had been a mystery, even to her.
'It was a very pretty device.'
'You still can't have it. The time capsule is very dangerous technology that has just started to wake up. I must be dealt with. Can you remember where you left it?'
'You are going to return?'
'I'm genetically linked to the vessel. Now it has discovered me, I have no choice.'
'What would happen if you ignored it?'
'The cells of my body would start to break down. It wouldn't be pleasant.'
There was nothing else to be said. Captain Peter Manners left his gardening tools where they were, relieved himself behind the obliging datura, and followed his nemesis with the platinum credit card to catch a ferry to the nearest island. There Phoebe purchased the only available launch for sale. It was ancient and would probably not have made it to the small, uninhabited island where the capsule lay if Captain Manners had not retained his navigation skills.
Wading ashore on the shallow beach of silver sand, they were met by an audible hum as Phoebe approached her vessel.
'Madam, your craft recognises you. It purrs like a contented cat.'
If only the machine had been that tame; its pilot knew all too well that the awakened beast would allow her no more options. It had permitted her to escape once - never again!
Manners was obviously finding it impossible to comprehend the danger they were in. 'Can we use it to travel elsewhere, a place where we can both be at ease?'
'Being genetically enhanced to match its biological components enables the time drive to accommodate my metabolism so drones like me can withstand the compression of the time barrier.' The expression of Captain Manners radiated incomprehension. ‘If you had been exposed to it for any length of time, your cells would have exploded.'
Captain Manners still hadn't a clue what she was talking about. 'This technology does indeed sound hazardous?'
'It is, especially if it falls into unscrupulous hands.' Phoebe turned to face him. 'You are no longer unscrupulous, Captain Manners. '
His eyes opened wide, as though he had been accused of eating children. 'Me, madam?'
'It must have crossed your mind to sell the location of my capsule to those who would have been interested in such technology?'
Of course the thought had crossed his mind, and he resented her not appreciating his integrity in resisting the temptation.
'Madam, we were unfortunates cast adrift on the ocean of calamity. Why should we betray each other?'
'The prospect of making a fortune did not appeal to you?'
Manners looked pained for a moment. 'What would I have done with a fortune in this strange, Godforsaken world? People's medical needs are catered for, no one starves and hanging is a very rare occurrence, certainly not wasted on petty wastrels like me.'
Pebbles were clattering over a mound in the outgoing tide and the humming increased; the time capsule was becoming impatient.
Manners cleared some of them away so the time traveller could key instructions into a panel which opened at her touch.
The limpets and seaweed corroding the hull were vaporised to reveal the pear drop shaped, pink vessel of Captain Manners' nightmares and he promptly lost any lingering desire to possess the box of glittering crystals that powered it.
Phoebe continued to work on the panel. A sequence of lights began to rapidly flash. 'There is one other problem I neglected to mention.'
'As I am genetically linked to my craft, I am obliged to obey its programming.'
'And how problematic is the cost of this symbiotic relationship?' Manners enquired warily.
'Unfortunately, because of the time it has taken to retrieve it, the failsafe has triggered a countdown to prevent the technology falling into the wrong hands.'
'That does sound unfortunate.' The Captain's old instinct for self-preservation flooded back like a mental tsunami. 'Is there no way you can divorce yourself from this infernal device?'
'No, that's why I have activated the only other option.'
Before Manners could protest, the time capsule had become a living entity. Had it been a sea monster, his first instinct would have been to harpoon the thing.
‘Destroy the beast!' he screamed.
But Phoebe's pink vessel now glowed like a huge, angry ember, its loud hum reverberating about the small island. The surrounding shellfish exploded like popcorn and the bed of seaweed on the pale sand shrivelled into the disorganised black strands of a demonic lacemaker.
Suddenly the capsule was aloft, hovering over the mismatched couple like a massive, enraged tick on the underbelly of the blue sky. It detected their ancient launch and vaporised the vessel with one shaft of energy, destroying their only means of escape. Then they were engulfed by the huge sphere of energy that it radiated.
'Madam! You must switch off this beast!'
But it was too late.
Their Universe revolved and Manners felt his soul flooded by other dimensions. Having lived with the possibility of sudden death in his earlier life, he was surprised at the lack of pain. Yet this had to be death. Nothing living could have survived the catastrophic explosion generated by the time capsule as it punched a hole in reality.
Eventually sensibility returned and things became tangible again.
This was a peculiar afterlife, far removed from the hellfire and damnation due to a petty rogue like Captain Manners.
He was aware of a young woman. She was difficult to place, and then he realised that it was because the time traveller was wearing sailcloth trousers and a calico blouse instead of the pink bodysuit.
He was dressed in high-laced shoes, knee breeches, calico shirt and canvas jacket, and had also regained his stolen years.
The island was higher in the water and they were standing beneath a grove of immature coconut palms. There was no trace of the time capsule.
Captain Manners shuddered. If he had to be stranded in another time period, he preferred it not to be the one that wanted to hang him.
'Where are we?'
'Out of time,' Phoebe reassured him.
He was perplexed. 'How can we be out of time?'
'The only way I could prevent the vessel from vaporising us was by instructing the guidance program to eject us out of time, to where we could not be traced.'
Manners sat on the coral sand and gazed into the hazy, salmon mist girdling the island. 'Are we dead?'
'There is no such thing. Would you have preferred death?'
'But how can we be out of time and still somewhere?'
'We are in an illusion of where we first met.' Phoebe waved a hand towards the shallows reflecting the setting sun's peach-coloured light. 'From here you can watch the stars, see your stepson and his family grow, visit the moon, drift in the clouds and, when you tire of all that, just let the illusion slip away.'
Manners rose and walked up a little higher to gaze over the mist. There was no horizon. The island and its lagoon were adrift in star-spangled space that stretched away into infinity.